Archive for the Bills of Mortality Category

Death by New River water – should have drunk beer, or maybe he did!

Posted in Accident, Bills of Mortality, Inquest with tags on 16/01/2012 by Craig Spence

On 15 January 1661 the Bills of Mortality reported the death of a man drowned at St John Clerkenwell. The parish burial register for that date provides a little more information noting that the man was a stranger and had drowned in the New River, or its reservoir, near to the Waterhouse in Islington (see Hollar’s excellent depiction below). It also notes that Mr Evans,  the Middlesex coroner, called an inquest on the body and then granted a warrant for burial. While drowning was the most frequent form of sudden violent death in early modern London the majority of these deaths took place in the River Thames. London’s lesser watercourses and smaller land-locked bodies of water did however contribute to the general toll; in fact between 1655-1735 at least eighty-three people drowned in the New River. How this particular individual came to be in the water is not known but it seems that the inquest jury decided this was neither a case of murder nor suicide, so perhaps a drunken stumble into the cold clean water of the New River was all that was needed. For more info on the New River Company see  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_River_(England).

 An engraving by Wenceslaus Hollar of the reservoir and Waterhouse of the New River Company in 1665 (just four years after the unknown man was drowned).

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This week in 1655

Posted in Accident, Bills of Mortality, Murder, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on 07/01/2012 by Craig Spence

As reported by the London weekly Bills of Mortality for the week of 2nd January 1655:

1 Drowned at St Katherine by the Tower;
1 killed by a bull at St Saviours Southwark;
murdered – an infant found in the street at St John the Evangelist;
1 scalded to death in a brewer’s kettle at St Botolph Bishopsgate;
1 slain at St Andrew Holborn.

Clearly the most notable of these fatalities are the persons killed by a bull and scalded in a brewer’s kettle. The bull incident was actually quite a rare occurrence; during the period 1654 to 1735 only twenty-two people were killed by cattle within the area of the Bills. Given that somewhere in the region of 90,000 live cattle passed through the London markets each year during this period the death toll seems relatively light considering the number of workers and passersby who might have been exposed to the animals. Perhaps people were careful to stay out of their way – most of the time? The brewing fatality was however a relatively more common incident, the heady mix of alcohol, boiling liquids and industrial processes actually resulted in the small number of brewery workers being exposed to a higher risk of fatal accident than many other metropolitan occupations.

Welcome to the Bills of Mortality …

Posted in Accident, Bills of Mortality, Murder, Suicide on 19/12/2011 by Craig Spence

We are all interested in sudden violent death … whether we like to admit it or not. The daily news is full of it in every form; print, broadcast or internet. The hard truth is we want to know about human disaster and tragedy if only to reaffirm our own humanity. It is in some ways reassuring to note that  it has been so from the very beginnings of printed news media – during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Alongside the diplomatic and commercial information the early news-sheets recounted murders, executions and accidents (usually fatal) on a regular basis. One of the earliest (if not the earliest) printed serial publication to make use of such material was the London weekly Bills of Mortality; although not exactly a newspaper in the traditional sense it was certainly purchased, shared and read as if it were.

The Bills were formulated initially to track disease (principally plague) and enumerate burials and christenings but from the mid 17th century they also listed causes of death including murders, suicides and accidental or unexplained violent deaths.   It is these reports that provide an insight into the form and frequency of sudden violent death throughout the period of the early modern metropolis.

My research has focused on the content of the weekly Bills from 1654 to 1735 (the period of their greatest accuracy); as a result I have collated information for 868 murders, 2,267 suicides and an astounding 12,394 accidental violent deaths. I hope over the coming weeks and months to take a closer look at some of these events – in the main the accidents and disasters. While I also aim, at various times, to consider wider aspects of early modern sudden violent death, risk, blame and response etc I intend to keep the pace going by taking an ‘on this day’ approach. Although I hope to post regularly please don’t expect me to post daily – weekly is much more likely!

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